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writes to his cousin Arthur, *In Optics I have made a very
curious discovery - at least it seems so to me.
If, as has been supposed, this refers to the 'characteristic
function', which Hamilton will presently describe for us, the
discover}- marks its author as the equal of any mathematician
in history for genuine precocity. On 7 July 1823 young Hamil-
ton passed, easily first out of 100 candidates, into Trinity
College. His fame had preceded Mm. and as was only to be
expected, he quickly became a celebrity: indeed his classical
and mathematical prowess, while he was yet an undergraduate,
excited the curiosity of academic circles in England and Scot-
land as well as in Ireland, and it was even declared by some that
a second Newton had arrived. The tale of his undergraduate
triumphs can be imagined - he carried off practically all the
available prizes and obtained the highest honours in both
classics and mathematics. But more important than all these
triumphs* he completed the first draft of Part I of his epoch-
making memoir on systems of rays. 'This young man', Dr
Brinkley remarked, when Hamilton presented his memoir to
the Royal Irish Academy, *I do not say Kill be, but is, the first
mathematician of his age.'
Even his laborious drudgeries to sustain his brilliant acade-
mic record and the hours spent more profitably on research did
not absorb all of young Hamilton's superabundant energies. At
nineteen he experienced the first of his three serious love affairs.
Being conscious of his own "unworthiness" - especially as con-
cerned his material prospects - William contented himself with
writing poems to the young lady, with the usual result: a
solider, more prosaic man married the girL Early in May 1825
Hamilton learned from his sweetheart's mother that his love
had married his rival. Some idea of the shock he experienced
cari be inferred from the fact that Hamilton, a deeply religious
man to whom suicide was a deadly sin, was tempted to drown
himself. Fortunately for science he solaced himself with another
poem. All his life Hamilton was a prolific versifier. But his true
poetry, as he told his friend and ardent admirer, William
Wordsworth, was his mathematics. From this no mathemati-
cian will dissent.
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